Missoula County moves to curtail overnight parking, camping in East Missoula

Missoula County commissioners on Thursday officially adopted an ordinance prohibiting overnight parking on two East Missoula streets in an effort to end what area residents and business owners have described as a growing nuisance.

The county explored the issue last week, but postponed the ordinance after questions surfaced on what constitutes a vehicle – one the county can legally tow.

John Hart, deputy county attorney, answered that question Thursday, saying the state definition of a vehicle represents a device that a person may be transported on or in down a public highway. It doesn’t include devices drawn by an animal.

“That’s a fairly broad definition,” Hart said. “I don’t believe that definition encompasses the standalone pickup camper that you’d plop down on the right of way, put up on stilts and leave. I don’t feel comfortable saying this resolution would apply to that particular camper.”

Kristi Lawrence, owner of Hellgate Canyon Storage, said overnight campers often occupy the right of way outside her business. Some have abandoned their vehicles or taken up long-term residence by placing trailers on blocks in the street.

“Right now, across from our building, there’s a camper on stilts,” said Lawrence. “It’s really precarious. I think of little kids playing on or around or trying to get in. That could be disastrous.”

The East Missoula Community Council expressed similar concerns, leaving the county to explore other legal ways to remove something that doesn’t meet the definition of a vehicle under state law.

Rather, it could be viewed as an encroachment on the public right of way.

“There’s a way around, but I’m not going to guarantee success in every scenario,” Hart said, saying state law also covers enforcement on the issue.

“There’s a distinct, explicit statutory procedure you’d have to follow for removing an encroachment,” Hart said. “The road supervisor or county surveyor must give notice orally or in writing requiring the encroachment be removed from the highway.”

If the encroachment – the camper shell in this case – obstructs the movement of other vehicles, it can be immediately removed. If it doesn’t, the county can order the road supervisor to remove the encroachment.

“It’s a process,” said Hart.

The county took similar steps against overnight parking in July after businesses in the Missoula Development Park said campers had left behind waste and garbage and harassed their employees. That resolution authorized the sheriff’s department to ticket and tow violators.

The ordinance adopted Thursday for Sommers Street and Michigan Avenue in East Missoula would do the same. It also gives the county the authority to remove other camping devices from the roadway if they’re deemed an obstruction.

“We could call these campers an encroachment and deal with it that way, as opposed to calling it a vehicle,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “We will do our darnedest.”

If the campers or vehicles are occupied by homeless residents and not abandoned, commissioners said that law enforcement would take appropriate actions.

Notice would be given under certain scenarios.

“If it’s not abandoned and there’s somebody in it, we’d reach out to the (Homeless Outreach Team), because those are the folks who deal specifically with people living in non-traditional situations,” Slotnick said.

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier offered a similar response, saying they would give any occupants notice before taking action.

“We’re not going to go in and yard it out of there while they’re still in it,” he said. “They’ll have an opportunity to move it, and if they refuse, we’ll have to figure out some next steps.

“If they are homeless and in need of a place to stay, this will be the avenue to hopefully hook them up with services and solve the problem permanently.”